Where do Christians get the impulse to build Christian schools? This article considers the history of establishing formal instruction based on the Scriptures. It makes a call for today's genenration to recapture a sense of the importance of Christian schools.

Source: The Outlook, 1994. 4 pages.

The Christian School Impulse

Christians are school builders. Our history as school builders reaches back many centuries and continues today. We build schools for our covenant youth close to home, and we build schools on for­eign mission fields to support the work of evangelism.

Why do we build schools? What is the impulse behind this Christian commitment? The original impulse is found in the words of Jesus: Love God with all your mind. Jesus taught that our minds are not to be ignored or put to sleep, but that our minds are a gift from God that must be consecrated to His service. As sin­ners our minds tend to wander from God, but Paul reminds us that as Christians we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. We are obligated to cultivate and develop our minds in obedience to God. Through Christian schools Chris­tians act to develop the minds of their children to love and glorify God.

Jesus' command to love God with our minds rests on the reality that Christianity is a Word-centered reli­gion. At its root our religion is not primarily a matter of conduct or ritual. Rather Christianity is a mat­ter of revelation and truth, revela­tion found for us in the Scriptures. Christians have always regarded the study of Scripture as vital for faith and life. They have recognized the need for formal instruction based on the Scriptures.

Our Heritage🔗

In Old Testament times we find formal study of the Word in the synagogue which had something of the character of a school. The Scriptures were carefully read and studied.

The synagogue's focus on study had a great impact on Christian worship, making the Word central and stimulating the Christian community to study the Word.

The earliest Christian schools were catechetical in nature. As the church made converts it recognized the need to educate these converts in the essentials of the faith. Pastors developed classes to train converts and prepare them for baptism. From this same context came some of the earliest creeds of the church.

By the early third century Origen, one of the church's most influential thinkers, began to envision schools that would go beyond basic catechetical instruction. He wanted to promote mature and thorough study of the Word. His program included the study of literature, science and phi­losophy as a preparation for the study of the Bible and theology. His ideal has remained the basis of all Christian colleges and universities (and most education in the West).

Origen's vision for education was not accepted universally or without controversy. Tertullian, an older contemporary of Origen, had asked, "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" He wondered what the Christian could learn from the non-Christian. Shouldn't Christians ex­clusively study the Bible rather than secular subjects? Ironically Tertullian pressed this point with the brilliant tools of rhetoric he had learned from his pagan education.

Another ancient father wrestled with the question of the value of pagan wisdom. Jerome, the great translator of the Bible into Latin, once sold all of his pagan books fear­ing that the Lord might one day say to him that he was not a Christian but a Ciceronian. He later had to buy those books back to accomplish his scholarly work for the Lord.

The tension between these differ­ent ancient approaches to education is still with us in a sense in the dif­ferences between Christian liberal arts colleges and Bible colleges. It is interesting to observe that over time Bible colleges tend to change in their evaluation of education as Jerome did, and move in the direc­tion of becoming liberal arts col­leges.

Christian schools experienced great growth in the Middle Ages in Europe. The Middle Ages (roughly 600-1500) saw a great experiment in Christian civilization. While we might criticize much in that experi­ment, the efforts to promote Chris­tian learning were admirable. Few were educated, but for those who were, education began with the trivium (the threefold way): the study of grammar, logic and rheto­ric. (The old tendency to call elementary schools "grammar" schools reflects this heritage.) Stu­dents then went on to the quadrivium (the fourfold way): music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. After this study one was prepared for the study of philosophy which then led on to either theology, law or medicine.

Medieval education was commit­ted to clear thinking and to truth. It led to a university system (the old­est universities in Europe were founded in the Middle Ages) that promoted a logical (or dialectical) culture. The scholastic theology of the period used logic in pursuit of truth.

The Renaissance in the fifteenth century brought a shift in the edu­cational curriculum. Much more attention was given to languages and the study of texts. Philosophy and truth were still appreciated, but the Renaissance wanted truth ex­pressed eloquently. Scholars be­lieved that the ancient Greeks and Romans had achieved a better bal­ance of truth and beauty than had the medievals. The Renaissance wanted truth effectively communi­cated in a way that spoke to the emotions as well as to the mind.

In many ways the tensions be­tween medieval and Renaissance ideals of education are still with us. Those who stress a "technical" or largely scientific education today are significantly the heirs of the Middle Ages, while those who stress the centrality of the humanities and lib­eral arts are heirs of the Renaissance.

The Reformation inherited ele­ments of both the medieval and Re­naissance approaches to education, although there can be no doubt that the Reformation stood closer to the Renaissance. Communication, lan­guages and the study of texts were all basic lessons of the Renaissance that the Reformers used in the ser­vice of Protestantism. Luther wrote of the centrality of the text of Scrip­ture to the enterprise of education:

Study Scripture! Without Scrip­ture our schools, our families, our cities and nations, our very souls are led astray by Satan into disor­der, disease and death ... I would ad­vise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme. Every institution that does not unceasingly pursue the study of God's Word becomes corrupt.

About the study of the original languages of Scripture Luther wrote, "In propor­tion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages ... If God did not despise them (Greek and Hebrew) but chose them above all others for his Word, then we too ought to honor them above all others ... And let us be sure of this: we will not long pre­serve the gospel without the languages.1

For the Reformers education was essential to prepare leadership in the church and the state. The ministry and the government required leaders who were thoroughly educated for their work.

Reformed Christians gave them­selves to the work of education with great zeal. They reformed old uni­versities such as Oxford and Cam­bridge and founded new ones: Strassburg, Geneva, Heidelberg, Leiden and Utrecht. In the new world they founded Harvard, Yale, Princeton and others. All these at one time were Reformed schools. Reformed interest was not limited to colleges however. One scholar has observed that under the influ­ence of the Reformation the num­ber of grammar schools increased greatly. In 1480, ten counties in En­gland had 34 schools. By 1660 those same counties had 500 schools.2

Reformed Christians built schools with two key goals: first, to train ministers, and second, to insure that Christians would be able to read the Bible. The greatest single mo­tive for universal literacy in west­ern culture was the desire for all to be able to read the Bible. The Word stood at the center of the schools Christians built.

The Reformed impulse to build schools in the new world dominated the educational enterprise in New England. There, Puritans built America's first col­lege, Harvard, in the 1630s. But the difficulties of maintaining faithful­ness appeared early even in that Pu­ritan environment. By the latter part of the seventeenth century many voices were raised about the grow­ing liberalism at Harvard. In re­sponse to these concerns Yale Col­lege was begun by Puritans in 1701. Tensions continued to arise as education developed in America.

Paul Scotchmer has traced the changes in American education in a very interesting essay entitled, "The Aims of American Education: A Re­view from Colonial Times to the Present." Scotchmer suggests that there have been three dominant phases in the history of American education. The first he calls the Pu­ritan phase. In this phase the aims of education were threefold: piety, morality and utility. The school was to encourage the student to be a de­vout Christian of moral life able to pursue some occupation. The Puritan ideal in education gradually gave way to what Scotchmer calls the Yankee phase. This phase aimed, Scotchmer argues, at morality and utility. The Puritan aim of educat­ing devout Christians was dropped. Rather a general morality as well as occupational preparation became the aim of education. Benjamin Franklin and the McGuffey readers were classic exponents of this phase. The third phase is called the Liberal phase. In this phase the sole aim that remains in education is the aim of utility. John Dewey is character­istic of this approach.

Scotchmer's analysis explains sev­eral tendencies that have been obvi­ous in many contemporary discus­sions of education. These discus­sions so often focus on what to teach and how to teach. These are surely important issues. But following Scotchmer's analysis we can see that the much more important issue to­day is why to teach. If students do not have a strong sense of the pur­pose of education, they will not be motivated to study or achieve. But if education is only for utility, only for job training, students will ask of many subjects, "What do I really need this for? How will I ever use it?"

In our day Christians and Chris­tian educators need to recapture that Puritan vision of education which built on classical views of education. Students need to study to understand the world that their God created. They need to study to be able to read and understand the Word of God. They need to study to become complete ("civilized" as the ancients said), using their minds to the fullest to glorify God. They need to resist the dominant utili­tarianism in education. They need the schools that are excellent in eve­ry way.

As American education progres­sively moved to its Yankee and then Liberal phases, many interested in Christian education came to believe that the American public schools were not schools for their children. Those interested in Christian edu­cation became more and more clearly outsiders to the American mainstream.

Lutherans felt that way and es­tablished Lutheran schools. Roman Catholics felt that way and founded their own parochial schools. Dutch Reformed sensed that and began Reformed Christian schools. More recently in America there has been the rapid expansion of fundamen­talist and pentecostal schools. These schools represent great theological variety, but all share in a sense of alienation from the American main­stream, first of all religiously, but usually also sociologically and eth­nically.

The Dutch Reformed schools of our tradition originally had a strong sense of purpose. It was well summed up in the famous motto of Groen van Prinsterer: "In our isola­tion is our strength." Initially Dutch Reformed schools were isolated in a variety of ways: ethnically, lin­guistically and geographically. But the isolation that really mattered was ideological or theological in character. Kuyper's idea of the an­tithesis became a strong expression of the Reformed conviction that in principle the regenerate and the un­regenerate are utterly distinct. Dordt College in its founding gave symbolic expression to this convic­tion in choosing its school colors: black and white.

Our Dilemma🔗

Today the isolation of our Reformed schools is changing in many ways. The linguistic isola­tion has ended. Many of our Chris­tian schools have spread into a va­riety of regions of the country and are much more ethnically diverse. Our schools are also less isolated theologically. They are affected by the same theological differences and tensions that the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Christian colleges are experiencing. Our community, including our schools, is increasingly becoming part of the American mainstream. We are not outsiders as much as we once were. Nor do we seem to de­sire to be outsiders.

Is our new "insider" sta­tus a reflection of the fact that our Reformed world-and-life view has transformed our culture? Or have we accommodated to the mainstream culture? Who is transforming whom? Have not we in fact given up the antithesis for accommodation?

The impact of this shift in the Reformed community could be dev­astating for the Christian schools. If we are insiders in American cul­ture, why do we any longer need the schools of outsiders? Already in the Christian Reformed Church voices are heard saying that the Christian school enterprise takes up too much time, energy and money in the church, resources that ought to be devoted to evangelism. Oth­ers are asking if our schools are suf­ficiently different from the public schools to justify their existence.

The irony of our current situation is that in many Christian Reformed communities a significant number of the Christian school teachers seem to want to be insiders as much as anyone. Some are clearly allied with the more liberal or progres­sive wing of the church that wants to bring the CRC into the main­stream. Yet should not all Chris­tian school teachers logically ally with the conservative wing of the church which believes passionately in the Christian school system and provides a great deal of the money that supports the system? The un­holy alliance of some Christian school teachers with progressives who do not really support Chris­tian education needs reexamination.

Indeed the whole enterprise of Christian education needs reexami­nation in every generation. Each generation and every family must recapture a sense of the importance of Christian schools. The only way to do that is to return to the original impulse: a commitment to the Word of God in all its fullness. We need to be convinced anew that the Bible in all its parts and all its words is the very Word of God. We need to live out our faith that only the rev­elation of God can guide us in a dark and sinful world and illumine our dark and sinful minds. Only the Word of God will save our Christian schools. God will bless those Christian schools that nurture the next generation on the inerrant Word of God.


  1. ^ "Cited in Mark Noll, "The Earliest Protes­tants and the Reformation of Educa­tion," Westminster Theological Jour­nal, 43 (1980), pp. 114,128,115.
  2. ^ Paul Scotchmer, "The Aims of Ameri­can Education: A Review from Colo­nial Times to the Present," Christian Scholar's Review, 13 (1984), p. 104.

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